Out of Water

What to Do When Draft Exceeds Depth

FSF Staff April 19, 2017

When enjoying time on the water, every boater is thrown a curveball or two sooner or later. Common culprits like out-of-nowhere storms and unforeseen engine trouble are to be expected every now and then, as inexperienced weekend warriors and seasoned captains alike are prone to these unanticipated inconveniences. Running aground, however, is a scenario few boaters feel they will ever encounter, but is unfortunately an all too real possibility no matter your experience.

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Sea Tow

It has been said there are three types of boaters: those who have run aground, those who will run aground, and those who have but won’t admit it. Even with the latest navigation equipment at your fingertips, it’s important to be prepared with the proper knowledge to get your passengers and vessel out of this unfavorable circumstance if and when it does arise.

...although boaters that run aground risk damage to their vessel and running gear, careless operators also harm essential habitat...

Whether traversing shallows en route to the open ocean or operating a high-performance skiff through one of the state’s various inshore venues, everyone is at risk of running aground. Even with decades of experience you can never let your guard down. And although boaters that run aground risk damage to their vessel and running gear, careless operators also harm essential habitat that’s critical to a diverse collection of marine animals.

Unfortunately, after running aground there is no single course of action that applies to every situation. Furthermore, once boaters run aground their immediate reaction is to slam the throttle in reverse in hopes of reaching deeper water. This is the absolute worst remedy, as you will suck in sediment through the engine intake and create more extensive damage to the bottom.

Instead of giving way to a knee-jerk reaction that could lead to more of a predicament, start by taking a minute to assess the situation. After making sure everyone on board is safe and that the boat isn’t taking on water, consider the tide and where the closest body of deeper water is. While the severity of the situation is in direct relation to the type of bottom and speed at which you hit it, what you do next will have a large influence on the outcome of the day and how much the folly is going to cost you.

If you are stuck on a flat but the tide is starting to rise, waiting it out is your best bet. However, along remote stretches of backcountry tidal movement can be almost non-existent and you could be waiting for a very long time.

After determining your boat is without a doubt grounded, there are basic measures that can be taken to increase the chance of freeing the vessel. A hard grounding means you are high and dry with likely damage to the boat, while a soft grounding means you’re just stuck for the time being.

With a soft grounding, you can try to free your vessel by reducing draft. Emptying the boat’s freshwater tank is effective, as long as the supply isn’t critical. Draining your livewells can also help shed weight in an effort to reduce draft. It may also be effective to shift all of the weight on the boat away from the point of impact so that the grounded part of the boat is lifted. If the water is shallow enough, a few passengers can egress from the vessel and attempt to physically push it to deeper water.

Depending on the velocity at which you hit bottom, you might be flat out stranded. Arranging a tow is the only remaining option, but if not done correctly towing can lead to more problems. One must be careful when utilizing visual distress signals, as nearby boaters who come to assist may not be aware of the same shallow water and find themselves in a similar situation.

It is understandable why one would seek the help from a fellow boater, but towing with insufficient lines and deck fittings can be extremely dangerous for both parties. Although most boaters aren’t willing to dish out the cash, it is often best to bite the bullet and call a professional towing company. Though sometimes expensive, depending on whether it is a salvage or tow, professionals can be counted on to have the proper equipment and expertise to tow the grounded craft to deeper water. Never call the Coast Guard unless you are in imminent danger.

Boaters should also be aware of the potential penalties associated with running aground Once grounded, it is illegal in some areas to try and power the boat into deeper water. Doing so can lead to severe fines, not to mention extensive damage to the ecosystem. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, operators can be fined $100 per incident under one square yard of seagrass damage, and $75 for each additional square yard.

Although boaters have ample resources in the form of charts and maps to avoid running aground, it still happens quite often. At the very least, you’ll damage fragile seagrass beds by leaving behind destructive prop scars. It is up to boaters to take it upon themselves and prepare for these situations. Running aground doesn’t necessarily mean disaster, but the all too common mishandling of groundings in Florida waters by recreational boaters is certainly cause for concern.

Lesson Learned

If you see brown water it’s likely seagrass beds are near the surface. White colorations indicate sandbars that are most likely shallower than they appear. Green water is generally of safe depth, but if you’re in an unfamiliar area proceed with caution.

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